For many in the local scene, the mention of Dessa's name conjures up a few well-tread facts: She's a literary agent, commended in the same breath for her talents in writing and rapping; she's the only woman in a rap crew of nine, and something of a team leader for the business model behind Doomtree. But take her new album, A Badly Broken Code, for a spin and the clichéd descriptions of Dessa start to fade away—it's not hip hop, exactly, and it's not really poetry, either.
It's an experimental pop record, and Dessa is teaching herself how to sing.
"I had been [singing] since I was really tiny, but not in any public capacity," she says, while sipping a glass of pink wine that has the consistency of a melted popsicle. "I don't have a technically beautiful voice, and I was raised in a family of technically beautiful voices. But in the past three years my voice has changed a lot. It's dropped a lot, and I've learned how to control the little slide whistle in my throat a little better, to make the most of what I have."
Local hip-hop fans are already aware that Dessa the rapper can hold her own against the other MCs in her crew, but the work on A Badly Broken Code is closer in style to her performance at last year's Spiral Bound book release at the Guthrie than her turns at the mic during Doomtree shows. Many of the songs are first-person narratives with overarching themes of loss, introspection, frustration, and anger, but even the most personal lyrics never delve into overly earnest territory. Songs still carry some of the swagger from Dessa's hip-hop persona, but there is a softened edge and an undercurrent of emotional honesty that contrasts her more brazen moments.
"There's some times that I feel confident," she says. "Even when I don't feel confident, I feel moved to try to sing and rap onstage. But the life that I'm singing and rapping about isn't full of only confident moments.
"I have a really enormous interest in being candid. In American mainstream culture, we leave the house, and very often we go to work, and we try to present our best selves. We iron our slacks, and if we're hung over we try not to show it, and if we're blue because we just got divorced we clean it up while we're at our desks. And while I understand the impulse to do that, I think when we do it so comprehensively we institutionalize this really detrimental imbalance. Because everybody's private selves are flawed and vulnerable."
Though it's not necessary to point out Dessa's gender to appreciate her art, there is something decidedly feminine about her approach to deconstructing the facades of hip hop. In one of her most literal tracks, "The Bullpen," Dessa half-sings, half-scoffs, "It's been assumed I'm soft or irrelevant because I refuse to downplay my intelligence/But in a room of thugs and rap veterans, why am I the only one who's acting like a gentleman?"
Dessa says she's aware that women are often pigeonholed for dwelling on emotional responses, and it's a balance she's still seeking out in her music. "It's weird," she says. "There's a certain gravitas that a story of heartbreak, for example, gets when it's delivered by a male vocalist, that it doesn't get when it's delivered by a woman—because women are expected to talk about feelings. And if a guy talks about feelings, it must be something special, so everybody quiet down and everybody listen to what he has to say."
From the beginning of her career as a rapper, Dessa has done a remarkable job of avoiding the stereotypes that go along with being a half-white female rapper surrounded by men. She's mastered the art of being honest without being gushingly confessional, and being feminine without dwelling on being the only female. It's a balance that she has been working toward since she first joined the Doomtree crew almost five years ago.
"I made a point of not wanting to participate in a song that had rappers on it and only sing the hook," she says. "There's so many women in hip hop that have been relegated to this—I'm the hot chick who sings hooks in a bathing suit. And I didn't ever want to be mistaken for anybody trying to fill that role. I'm a size 8 or 9, and for the first two years of performing onstage I wore a size 12 or 16 pants, and a borrowed sweatshirt. Because I didn't want to give anybody a reason to dismiss me."
DESSA plays a CD-release show with Jeremy Messersmith, Cecil Otter, and Aby Wolf on FRIDAY, JANUARY 22, at the FINE LINE MUSIC CAFÉ; 612.338.8100